Chez l'abeille

Culture. Travel. Writing. My world in words and pictures


Bananas and Sausages!

Two new books appeared recently and both are fully focused on food! Published by Maverick, these are fun reads which would make a great bedtime or story time book. In the classroom they also offer interesting opportunities to support the literacy curriculum.

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Iguanas Love Bananas by Jennie & Chris Cladingbee, with illustrations by Jeff Crowther is a reading feast! It starts simply by asking “who knew?” then launches into a run of rhymes that take in a huge variety of animals and their favourite foods. Bees apparently prefer cream teas – I was very pleased to note that these particular bees are obviously well brought up Cornish bees (they put the jam on first!). The pictures are vibrant and packed full of tings to notice and discuss. There are some interesting words within the text, which children will be able to explore and use to build their vocabulary – sophisticated is just one example, a six syllable word which just rolls around, though constipated may be fun to explain!

“Teachers should ensure that their teaching develops pupils’ oral vocabulary”

“Pupils’ vocabulary should be developed when they listen to books read aloud and when they discuss what they have heard. Such vocabulary can also feed into their writing. Knowing the meaning of more words increases pupils’ chances of understanding when they read by themselves.”

KS1 English

The rhyming couplets whisk you through the panoply of animals and their favourite foods but then the twist! Suddenly they’re all off, as fast as they can run. Just what is it that they cannot stand…well, you’ll have to read the book to find out, but suffice to say this book might also squeeze itself onto a Christmas book list too!

Its-MY-Sausage-LR-RGB-JPEG-275x280The second book is “It’s MY sausage”, written and illustrated by Alex Willmore, who also illustrated two books by fellow SCBWI member Alison Donald. I was also reminded a little of Vivianne Shwarz’s cats.

“There are five of us but just one sausage” says the narrator… and there is the problem, laid out on spread 1. How will this cat keep the sausage all to itself, despite the best efforts of the rest?

Much relies on the visual literacy of the reader as the owner of the sausage goes to increasingly zany lengths to save it from the other four cats. The smallest of clues leads us to see that maybe this isn’t going to end the way this selfish cat believes!

“Role-play and other drama techniques can help pupils to identify with and explore characters.”  Key stage 1 English

The use of the first person would make this an interesting text to discuss in class or to use as a model for independent writing activities. It would also lend itself well to drama activities, such as hot seating, to explore the characters. Each cat has a range of expressions which at a stroke give us a sense of their inner thoughts and desires so their inner thoughts could also be an interesting writing prompt.

The moral aspects of the story would be a good starting point for a circle time discussion. Do the cats deserve the sausage. Are they the authors of their own downfall? How would five cats share one sausage fairly? Many moral issues exist within this story which will appeal to most children.

Bananas and sausages – now I’m feeling hungry!!

©Chez l’abeille  2019

Disclaimer: I was provided with complimentary copies of the books by Maverick Books. I was not recompensed for this review and all views are my own.

 


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Reading for pleasure part 1: What’s new in the Maverick Gold Band.

It will soon be the start of the summer term and for many Key Stage One teachers this means one thing: time for the Statutory Assessments or SATs. Reading is a key part of this process and by the time a child is completing this phase of their education there are a number of skills they are expected to master. Among the list provided in the National Curriculum we find that children should:

  • read accurately by blending the sounds in words that contain the graphemes  taught so far, especially recognising alternative sounds for graphemes
  • read accurately words of two or more syllables
  • read further common exception words
  • read aloud books closely matched to their improving phonic knowledge, sounding out unfamiliar words accurately, automatically and without undue hesitation

I would also add an additional aspect to reading at this age – it has to be FUN! Being able to read for the sheer joy and pleasure of the story is vitally important. So the books children have access to at this vital stage need to not only support their independence in the mechanics of reading, but also enthuse and engage them.

Looking at the new additions to the Maverick Early Readers at the Gold Band level, I think Year Two teachers will find plenty to support children develop these essential building blocks towards independent reading. Each one is a five chapter book, which will build reading stamina. On top of that they are great stories that are fun to read.

ER-The-Chicken-Knitters-Cover-LR-RGB-JPEG-731x1024“The Chicken Knitters” by Cath Jones and Sean Longcroft is a rollicking adventure with a host of capable and fast thinking female characters, including the chickens!  As I have recently rediscovered the joy of crochet, I was immediately drawn to this title. Lilly, our knitting heroine is determined to save the featherless chickens from the clutches of Farmer Claw. Despite several setbacks, she finally outwits the farmer with the help of the local school knitting champions and Edna McLuskey, the school caretaker.

Many of the year 2 spelling and grammar expectations feature, providing much needed examples in context. The text also includes plenty of onomatopoeia, which enriches the language experienced by the reader. What I particularly liked is the way environmental and animal welfare issues are carefully integrated into the story. This book would provide a good launch point for discussion around these points. The value of crafts and making things is another aspect which is promoted, and I was pleased to see that the champion knitters included a boy! More perceptive readers may wonder why Lilly herself wasn’t at school, but “The Chicken Knitters” is an engaging chapter book, with a very satisfying and happy conclusion.

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Katie Dale has two new books in the Gold Band. “The Coach, the Shoes and the Football”, illustrated by Ellie O’Shea, is a witty inversion of the traditional Cinderella story. Raj (who is presumably an orphan because his mum is never mentioned) lives with Terry, his uncaring stepfather, and his two dreadful step brothers. All three make Raj’s life miserable and his only hope on the horizon is the summer football camp. Will Raj get to the try outs and impress Coach Prince? Not if Luke and Damon can help it. But despite their efforts and a series of setbacks, Raj is saved by his “hairy Godfather”, Dan, who even provides some sparkly new football boots too.

I liked the way the story references the traditional tale, but makes it a modern version – perfect for prompting similar re-telling of traditional tales from a different angle. It also uses interesting similes and wordplay to stretch the reader. When challenged, Terry turns “as purple as a beetroot,” and there’s also a full on cheesy Cinderella/football joke at the end which should make everyone groan!

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Katie Dale’s second book is “The Magic Music box”, illustrated by Giovana Medeiros.

Bella is desperate to go to ballet school, but there just isn’t any spare cash to pay for it. Bella, however is determined and saves hard to acquire the tutu and shoes she needs. She is also given a magical music box with a dancing ballerina by the mysterious lady in the charity shop. The dancing ballerina inside coaches Bella until she is ready for the talent competition. But things don’t go as the reader may predict – and this is my favourite part of the story. In a time when talent shows are seen as THE way to achieve success, it’s heartening to have a story where hard work and practice are the virtues that get rewarded. In turn, Bella passes on the magical musical box to a dance obsessed boy – another nice twist in this engaging tale.

The story uses alliteration to very good effect, for example, Bella does the cha-cha-cha to the charity shop. There is also a range of descriptive vocabulary which will open up inference questions; when Bella trudges to the charity shop or bites her lip, how is she feeling? The illustrations also open up questions to be explored…just who is the woman from the charity shop?!  This is a sweet tale which emphasises how hard work is what will ultimately help you achieve your dreams.

ER-The-Spooky-Sleepover-Cover-LR-RGB-JPEG-731x1024Finally we have “The Spooky Sleepover” by Elizabeth Dale, illustrated by Steve Wood. I was particularly taken with the monochrome illustrations in this book, which seem to bridge between all colour picture books and an illustrated story.

Summer can’t wait to show off her new house to her friends, and nothing, including spooky noises and a mysterious cat, is going to stop the four girls from having fun! Ella is not so sure about the spooky goings on, but her friends are so reassuring that even she takes part in the midnight ghost hunt. The next day the four friends make a surprise discovery, with an even more surprising ending.

This story manages the balance between being scary but not TOO scary very well indeed! The lovely black and white illustrations work well, as the girls explore the night-time house, where every sound is different to the familiar day time world. I also like the way the girls are not reacting in a stereotypical way to the spooky noises and goings on. Summer has a practical explanation for each occurrence, and they all positively relish the idea of holidays spent looking for ghosts! The story builds gently to the final reveal, but still leaves enough room for discussion about what really happened.

All four of these new Gold Band books will give independent readers a challenge and support their writing skills too. Children who are writing at the greater depth standard are expected to “write effectively and coherently for different purposes, drawing on their reading to inform the vocabulary and grammar of their writing“. If these are the books they are reading, then they should be off to a great start.

©Chez l’abeille  2019

Disclaimer: I was provided with copies of the books by Maverick Books. I was not recompensed for this review and all views are my own.

 


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Writing: It’s a marathon not a sprint

youg child writing

I’ve always thought of myself as someone who writes, but it’s only in the last five years that I have written seriously.

After an exciting early phase of sending out frankly awful drafts of my stories, without a clue to why they were not the marvellous things I thought they were, I settled into a routine. Write, revise, critique, revise, submit. Repeat.

Time stretched and days passed as I wrote and wrote, furiously trying to balance the daily requirements of work and life…periods of drought when I thought I’d never have a new idea in my life, punctuated by needle sharp clarity and inspiration. Yet the rejections kept coming.

Then, as a result of winning a SCBWI Slushpile challenge I was accepted onto the very first Golden Egg Academy picture book programme. In the summer of 2018, I began submitting my stories again. As a GEA graduate and armed with three edited stories, I was feeling positive. Submit, wait…

Rejection. Rejection, rejection.

I felt crushed. I had poured my heart and soul into those stories for over a year. I had put all submission and competition entry on hold to give myself a chance…and for what purpose? To feel like THAT?

I’ve never wanted to run, let alone run a marathon but I think the resilience of the long distance runner must, in some way, be akin to that of the unpublished writer. Over the past five years, I have learnt to dig deep and stay in the race. I have jumped hurdles and learnt to get back up again. I have joined forces with other runners and writers to boost morale and share strategy. I have celebrated the successes and hard fought wins of others, whilst trying not to say out loud, “but when will it be MY turn?”

At this point, if I’m honest, I was the closest I have been to simply stopping. After all, no-one would get hurt, nothing would change, would it? Yet deep down, the toughness I had learned along the way wouldn’t let me. Just keep going, just keep writing, just keep submitting.

Write, submit…

Well, what can I say? I’m still pinching myself when I say to people that I’m now a represented writer. I have signed with a Literary Agent who loves my stories. We are editing and shaping to start submitting to publishers in the Spring. My first marathon has been run. A new one is about to begin.

This time I’m ready.

 

 

 


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Making Reading Real Again.

One of the longest standing debates in the teaching of reading must be the reading scheme vs. “real books” one. Over nearly 35 years of being involved in the teaching of reading, this one has rumbled and rumbled. Being a realist, I was always aware that the barrier to reading a published picture book independently lay in the complexity of the written words and this remains the main stumbling block.

Maverick have grasped this nettle and are building a deliciously appealing set of banded reading books which combine both the aesthetics of a picture book, yet have the graded vocabulary required to match a child’s developing decoding skills. The colour bands used to grade the books are derived from the “Book Band” system, developed by the Institute of Education, and used widely in schools to match books across the many existing schemes. I’ve been a long-standing devotee of the book bands, as they give teachers a short hand system for judging the relative difficulty of a book. In my day job I work with primary schools and this includes the moderation of reading assessments in Reception and Year. At times like this, being able to judge a book by its cover comes in very handy!

Maverick titles August 2018

New Maverick titles August 2018

I was able to review some of the earlier books in the scheme, which were in the Purple Band – definitely for the more confident readers likely to be in Key Stage 1. These were retellings of existing picture books, which was what I loved about them! I was therefore keen to see if there was any difference in the earlier bands, given the need to pitch the language and vocabulary to a more specific range of reading skills and knowledge.

Both books really worked well for me. Jim and the Big Fish, by SCBWI friend Clare Helen Welsh and Illustrated by Patricia Reagan is a Yellow Band book – this would roughly be aimed at a Reception/Year 1 child. It is a charming story with a seaside setting – now knowing Clare lives in Devon, this didn’t surprise me! Jim tries unsuccessfully to catch a big fish but the items he does fish out of the harbour, courtesy of the pesky seagulls, help him achieve his aim in a roundabout way! There are simple sentences and speech bubbles which feature easily decodable words, perfect for the developing reader. The usual quiz is at the end of the book to support recall skills. The illustrations also provide some opportunities for practising inference and deduction skills, as you have to look quite hard to see that the man in the boat is also fishing – it took me two reads through!

Little Scarlet’s Big Fibs by Katie Dale, Illustrated by Kevin Payne is a Blue Band book,  – perfect for Year 1 readers. This is based on the traditional Red Riding Hood story but with a great twist that will get children laughing! There is an increase in the number of sentences on the page, which will build reading stamina, but the reader is still supported by decodable words to help fluency. Small illustrated clues also give the reader information about just what Little Scarlet is up to and why Granny isn’t getting her treats. Granny is quite savvy and I’m also sure Scarlet won’t be eating her snacks again! One thing I did wonder about was the universality of crossing your fingers behind your back to excuse a fib…again this is a very small illustrative detail but key to any discussion around Scarlet’s behaviour – is telling lies to your Granny a good or bad thing? This would definitely be worth exploring from a moral standpoint.

Once again the high production values and quality of the writing shine through in both books and I think these are a great addition to the Maverick Early Reader scheme.

©Chez l’abeille  2018

 


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A “Maverick” reading scheme? Yes please!

As a child I read everything and anything I could get my hands on and I can still vividly recall the moment I realised I was actually reading in my head! It was magical; words and pictures danced together, creating a perfect moment of pure story pleasure.

What I also remember is that I was very conscious of the existence of two types of books; the ones I chose for myself and the ones I had to read. The school reading books. The utterly boring and tedious activities of characters I had no interest or desire to know any more about, thank you! My Naughty Little Sister, Paddington Bear or Olga Da Polga would trump anything that Janet and John or Peter and Jane could offer me, any day.

“Literacy begins with immersion in an environment in which the skill is used in a purposeful, active, and meaningful way.”

Don Holdaway, “The Foundations of Literacy” (1979)

How could any reading scheme be purposeful, active and meaningful, when there were so many exciting books to explore and read? As a result, even as an experienced primary teacher, I have always been a tad suspicious of any reading scheme, no matter how “real book” they try to be.

I was curious, therefore, to have a closer look at the new “Early Readers” from Maverick Children’s Books. The idea behind this series is simple: to create reading books that support the transition from being a listener to being a reader. The resulting books have also been “banded” according to the Institute of Education’s book bands for guided reading, which provides clear guidance on the level of difficulty and reading skills needed. This is a big plus for me, as I frequently use the book bands in my advisory work with schools.

Working with their roster of established authors (including several SCBWI friends across the whole series), the purple band books are based on existing stories or characters, with which children may already be familiar. The established pairings of author and illustrator are also replicated, which again provides a sense of familiarity and high quality. In look and feel they have the same structure as a typical picture book with each one running to thirteen double page spreads. Illustrations and text work well together, although there is a greater separation of text and image on the page than is typically found in a picture book. This enhances the sense that they are a step up from a picture book  – they are instead books with great pictures! Yet there is still much to explore in the illustrations and I particularly liked Queen Fluff’s encounter with a rat in his underpants in “A Right Royal Mess”. 

As reading books these would be suitable for reading alone or in a guided group. Maverick have created useful activity packs for some of the books which can support the teaching of reading in a group activity or at home. For example a focus on specific consonant clusters is suggested if reading “The Jelly That Wouldn’t Wobble”, and key language features that can be used in writing, such as onomatopoeia are also featured. Yet they are not too schooly and I think they would be equally welcome as a shared bedtime story.

Each story comes with a quiz at the end, which can be used to support recall of key information. If I were to suggest one thing to strengthen this section of the book, it would be a greater focus on inference. Some questions do provide a “think about” element such as “Why does nobody want to help the Grizzly? in “The Great Grizzly Race., but there is only one answer. More open-ended questions could provide greater challenge and opportunities to develop skills of being able to “answer questions and make some inferences on the basis of what is being said and done” (End of KS1 expected standard).

For me, each book works well as a complete story, bringing the sense of satisfaction that comes from active engagement in a well written picture book. For a transitional reader the overall reading experience would be supportive, yet one of moving on to something more challenging. In Don Holdaway’s words, they are definitely purposeful and meaningful.

So am I converted? I have to say I am.

©Chez l’abeille  2017

Disclaimer: I was invited to review the Maverick Early Reader books by the publisher who provided copies of three purple band books.
I have received no compensation for doing this piece and all opinions are my own.

 


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In retreat again.

I first went on a writing retreat in 2015. At that time I found it all rather overwhelming and I remember how I was utterly in awe of the other writers and illustrators I was meeting. My overwhelming memory was of being a bit lost and brimful of doubt. I was also feeling like a real imposter. It was surprising then to hear all these feelings and more  shared by everyone at this year’s SCBWI Picture Book Retreat.

During his session on writing Picture Books, Author/Illustrator David Lucas asked us to write down a personal fear; something we felt could be an emotional problem for a character. One by one we anonymously bared our souls as each slip of paper was pulled from the bag: fear of failure, feeling the grass is always greener, wanting to please others… it turns out all picture book writers and illustrators are a fairly neurotic bunch!

“A really good book is a mystical whole.”

David had a pretty good reason for putting us all in therapy for an hour or two. He wanted us to consider those emotions that are universally understood. Through mining the seams of our own psyches we were able to explore the interplay between the particular and the universal. Shared human emotions such as feeling lost, lonely or stuck  are coloured in differently by each of us and we can use these personal experiences to create that universally appealing story. Sometimes the thing that is missing from your umpteenth draft is not the strength of your idea (The Head) or your skill in constructing the story (The Hand) but the emotion or Heart. Without this emotional connection the reader simply won’t care about your character. As David said so passionately, look to your real world and your characters can come alive.

“The real world is more amazing than we know”

We were lucky to also have a session led by Adam Stower, author/illustrator of many successful picture books but most recently the rather marvellous “King Coo”. If you’ve not yet seen this book you really are missing out! (Especially if, like me, you are a secret Molesworth fan.)

Adam took us through his own creative process and shared his fabulous sketchbook archive where we got to see his later characters emerging from earlier observations and ideas.Adam Stower We also explored in some detail the relationship between words and pictures by analysing his book “Silly Doggy”; it is only from the illustrations that the reader knows that Lily’s doggy is in fact, a bear! This empowers the reader but also means the narrator doesn’t have to lie to their audience. His use of a poster to give key narrative information was a lightbulb moment for me in solving a problem with one of my texts so thanks, Adam!

Alongside Adam we also had the benefit of Zoe Tucker’s long experience as an art director. Zoe treated us to examples of fabulously illustrated submissions and correspondence from several well-known picture book illustrators. Social media is fast becoming a key way for art directors to spot new talent. Her top tip was to be an avid user of tools like Instagram, as a way for illustrators to create an instant portfolio but also for writers as a jumping off point for possible stories.

There were many interesting discussions during the weekend, but often we returned to the knotty issue of word counts. Amongst my critique group we have recently been discussing requests from editors to cut out at least 150 words from an already skeletal text and the perceived target word count seems to tumble with every conversation. Peter Marley, Commissioning Editor of children’s picture books at Oxford University Press gave us an encouraging range of  500 – 700 words in his discussion about structure – yet he still urged removal of unnecessary text. Maybe what’s important is not the word count but making every word count!

“Picture Books are like a building – words can be scaffolding which are gradually removed”

Peter outlined his template for seeing quite quickly if a story is going to essentially “work”. He  broke down the traditional 12 spread layout even further to illustrate how the first three spreads will set up the problem and typically send our hero off on a quest to solve it. The mid-section will give the hero space to solve the problem with the twist or “kink in the road” somewhere around spreads ten or eleven, before their safe return home. I was particularly interested in this “circular structure” which in traditional fairy tales is often described as the “There and back again” model; think of Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Snow Queen” where Gerda goes on her mission to rescue Kai and bring him home. Both are changed by this journey and the reader’s satisfaction lies in what David Lucas described as the “multiple possibilities” they have as a result of their experiences.

Dummy book

During the weekend every speaker emphasised the importance of making dummy books, so for book making newbies here’s my personal favourite; The “snip and fold quick book” method which I often use to layout my own stories. When making a dummy Peter also suggested including the cover and imprint pages – in fact mock-up the whole book so you can read it through in exactly the way your future readers will experience it.

This time, for me, the weekend passed by far too quickly in a heady mix of writing, drawing and good company. Time out to reflect and review is always time well spent and this retreat certainly provided for my head, my hands and my heart.

©Chez l’abeille  2017


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Sometimes you win…

I don’t really consider myself as someone who wins things. True there was the under 11s photographic competition highly recommended back in 1971, a Puffin Book Club prize for something completely forgotten and some near misses with school raffles, but being the actual winner? Nah. Not something that happens that often.

By January 2017 I’d also been languishing in what felt like complete avoidance from all the agents and publishers I’d submitted to. Rejection is one thing but nothing? I’d not heard a peep from any of them and was seriously doubting myself and my capabilities as a writer. So when a flurry of excitement about a picture book challenge appeared online I was at first rather reluctant to join in.

The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators regularly hosts a Slush-Pile Challenge. Unpublished and un-agented writers (i.e. ME!) can submit a piece of work which might get selected to be read by a real life proper agent who knows what’s what. The brief set by Jodie Hodges of United Agents was fairly straightforward. She was after a picture book text that featured a human child at its heart (so, no animal protagonists). A story that young children and their parents could read together that would make them laugh or cuddle, or both. Surely I would be able to find something suitable?

Having written nothing new for several months I looked back into my archive. Picture book challenges don’t come along every month so I felt I had to submit, but which one? The tortoise one? Not human enough. The space one? Not ready enough.  I did have one though which seemed to fit the bill.

Where's that tiger“Where’s That Tiger?” started life in 2015 as an exercise at the Arvon picture Book retreat. During a workshop on rhyming structures I’d scribbled some frankly painful couplets, but the kernel of an idea was there. Almost a year later I was at a SCBWI masterclass with Ellie Brough, which brought it back to mind so I’d worked on it again. I don’t usually write in rhyme but it was finished and in reasonable shape. One click later it had gone.

May 2nd 2017: Hope dashed. Part of the challenge is also to be one of the randomly selected manuscripts. My story wasn’t one of the 25 that went to Jodie. I tried hard to be philosophical about this and console myself with feeling positive I’d entered in the first place.

May 11th 2017: Hope rises again. More stories are going forward! Mine is one of them…I was just a teensy bit excited.

June 3rd 2017: “I’m delighted to inform you that you’ve won”.  And breathe. I sat in bed and read Jodie’s comments over and over again.

“This entry had a fabulous, commercial, appealing central concept, a really strong rhyming voice, a great page turn moment from spreads 6 to 7 and the clever added bonus of the narrative slowly taking the protagonist and reader to bed. I always like a text to end with a twist, a cuddle or in bed!’”

An actual literary agent had said that? About my story? I was elated.

There followed a really hard 24 hours of radio silence in which I had to ignore my critique group who were busy chatting about their “sorry you didn’t win” emails and wondering who had, then a flurry of congratulations and finally the prize itself: a meeting with Jodie to discuss my work. In advance she had asked if I wanted to share a couple of additional texts so I had sent her the tortoise one and the space one as a follow up. She was able to meet with me quite quickly so I arranged time off work and underlined it in my diary in triplicate. With stars.

On the day  of the meeting I was, as ever, ridiculously early which turned out to be a good thing as finding United Agents was a bit tricky. I wandered up and down the street for a while looking rather out of place amongst the Soho hipsters but eventually I located the secret doorbell and was settled into Jodie’s book lined office with a nice cup of tea, feeling like a real fraud! Jodie was a great host however and we spent nearly two hours discussing writing and the whims of the publishing world. One of the things I struggle with is finding a killer title and she helpfully talked through the titles of her successful books and how they take the reader straight to the heart of the story itself. The rise of illustrated non-fiction was also something we explored in relation to some of my ideas. She was very encouraging about my own stories and offered great insights on how they can be developed to increase their commercial appeal. I came away from the meeting with a head full of ideas and a real sense of positivity and encouragement to keep writing.

So I’ve wiped the slate clean and decided to move on from all those unanswered submissions. You’ve got to stay in it to win it.

©Chez l’abeille  2017


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What a character!

“Actions, looks, words and steps form the alphabet by which you may spell character.” Johann Kasper Lavater

Much of my day job is spent tuning into young children and trying to understand their motivations and desires. Following a curious infant, hell bent on discovering where a forbidden object has gone certainly helps you see their investigative ingenuity in full force. A few weeks ago I heard a child development expert describe a typical two year old. “Their job,” she said, “is to find out how everything in the world works.”

This observation came back to me in a different guise as I listened to Natascha Biebow at a recent SCBWI masterclass on developing characters. “Observe the world around you,” she said, “and think about what motivates children to do what they are doing”. The world of children is mostly determined by what is happening to them “in the moment” and if we watch we can often find great starting points for writing a really satisfying story.

Just WHO is your character? Continue reading


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“To ignite their interest”: 10 tips for visiting authors in the early years.

What could be better than this?

“Children must be given access to a wide range of reading materials (books, poems, and other written materials) to ignite their interest.”

The statutory framework for the early years foundation stage

Not much! For young children their interest in the world around them often starts with the books we share and read with them. To meet someone who actually writes or illustrates books can be a truly inspirational experience. However, for many adults, authors included, being asked to engage a group of three, four or five year olds for any length of time can be the most daunting experience they could think of.

Having worked with under fives for many years, as a teacher and early years consultant, I have experienced those tumbleweed moments when small children simply vote with their feet! Here then are my top tips for planning and delivering a successful author visit to any early years classroom.

Part one: Telling stories.

#1. Location, location, location. Nursery age children in particular are most comfortable in a space they are used to being in. Take them out of their familiar surroundings and other exciting new things will soon eclipse your attempts to command attention! Try to meet the children in their own classrooms to minimise other attention grabbing goings-on.

#2. Attention spans. There are many rules of thumb for determining children’s attention spans. Most typically it is the child’s age plus 1, or the child’s age x 4. Whichever way you consider it, young children do not have long attention spans so if you are reading your story to them don’t expect to be doing it for more than around 15 minutes for a nursery group or 20 minutes for a reception group. After that they will probably start to fidget.They are also remarkably capable of simply  wandering off, no matter how exciting you think you are being!

#3. Bring your character to life. Young children are immensely skilled at willingly suspending their disbelief and they love a puppet or character to engage with. Where they can be shy of unknown adults, a puppet gives them someone non-threatening to talk and listen to. Puppets can also gain their initial interest and help them understand the themes or emotions within a story. If you can illustrate, then drawing your characters will also be a great starting point. Children see being confident at drawing as a highly prized skill.

#4. Keep it interactive. Songs, rhymes, chants, actions, sound effects, using other languages…all these engage young children and keep them involved in the story. There are many song tunes which children will know from an early age to which you can put your own words – try teaching new lyrics to twinkle, twinkle little star and see how easy it is!

#5. Question time! Ask any early years child a question and the responses can range from a detailed description of their new shoes to the more varied random thoughts that enter their heads; “How old are you?” and “Do you have a mum?” would be fairly standard fare. Instead, try asking them open-ended questions about their views on your characters’ behaviour or experiences. Older children may have prepared questions to ask you –  try throwing questions back to them to so it is a more interactive experience.

You’ve made it alive this far! Continue reading


Love of the common language

It is often commented that America and Britain are two countries separated by a common language. The most recent Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) London Industry Insider event proved that we may have more in common than we think, especially when it comes to children’s publishing. The guests for the evening were Clelia Gore, Head of Children’s and Young Adult books with Martin Literary Management, based in Seattle and Amber Caravéo from Skylark Literary. Clelia was in town for a visit and had very generously enquired if there was any SCBWI activity she could join in with. Her proactive engagement with SCBWI was a recurring theme in the discussions – more of that later!

Having settled down with a very welcome post-work aperitif, I was treated to an in-depth Q and A session. We began with an overview of what Clelia and Amber would be looking for. This is always good to know and both had very specific likes and dislikes. Amber is definitely “looking for the gem” in Children’s or YA to add to the phenomenal talent on her current list, but, she added “if it was an amazing picture book I wouldn’t rule it out.” Clelia helpfully includes a list of all the things she wants on her website. Thus began the tale of the kraken. Having tweeted her desire for a kraken story, an editor tweeted their agreement. Clelia then approached the SCBWI group in Washington to see if anyone had one, resulting in a successful submission! So listen up picture book writers; Clelia says, “Okapis are my favourite animal. I’d love to do a quirky, funny book about an okapi!”

When asked about how an author should submit if they write for a wide range of ages both agents were in complete agreement; always submit your very best work. As Amber commented, if she connects with one piece it’s odds on that she will like your other work too. Equally she talked about a submission where the story didn’t hook her, but the quality of the author’s voice shone through. This resulted in a request for any other work and a second manuscript became the published book. Voice and writing talent will show but plot can always be worked on.

Read the submissions guidelines was the evergreen guidance but both Amber and Clelia work hard to ensure successful submissions are responded to in a timely way – something I’d appreciate as I wait for a response to several submissions going back a few months now. What was surprising was the lead in time in America, where books which will hit the shelves in 2019 and even 2020 are being sold to publishers! Typically in the UK publication can be around a year, but wherever you publish, I’ll assume it’s going to be a slow process.

The difference between American and UK Young Adult writing was another fascinating question. It was felt that current innovation in YA literature is coming from America and maybe UK YA writers are not quite capturing the zeitgeist. however there was complete agreement that there should be, “No more dead or alcoholic parents!” There was also some variation in the age ranges and word counts that might be expected. I was very excited to hear both Amber and Clelia suggest 1000 words for a picture book, being a champion for the longer story but in my later discussions with Clelia, she felt that most books would be much lower than that. Back to the editing for me.

The audience also wondered why a British writer might want an American agent. Clelia felt that for YA, Middle Grade and Picture Book writers (yay!) the market is very strong. She has clients across the globe but even in America much of the work is done remotely anyway. Transatlantic promotion might be a bit tricky, unless you or your publisher can afford long road trips so being a social media savant would be very handy.

The evening ended with mingling and meeting new and known SCBWI members and for some members a little light pitching. Now I hate pitching, so for anyone who shares that feeling, here’s a great piece of advice from Amber. “In the end they want to see the writing. Nothing in your pitch will change the impact of your actual submission. Nothing you say will spoil your chances.”I am going to keep that as my preparing to pitch mantra.

So there we have it – maybe we are separated by our common language, but in the world of writers maybe we are also joined by our common love of language.


Editors – Just what DO they want?

Well that’s a pretty big question! Anyone who aspires to publication spends quite some time second guessing the desires of those legendary gatekeepers, Agent and Editor. In our never-ending quest we tirelessly seek out the breadcrumb trails of informed rumour and whisper. Collectively, the great unpublished try to work out how to unlock the door to the magical kingdom of publishing. And for every scrap of knowledge there is an equal and opposite alternate reality.

Hurrah then for SCBWI and their always brilliant masterclasses. This is the fast track route to the knowledge and Rachel Wade, Children’s Book Editor with Hachette Children’s Group gave us a full insight into what editors do and want.

Rachel Wade

Rachel Wade helping us write our pitch!

Rachel started out by asking what we knew of  imprints – cue a bit of head scratching. Publishing houses will often have different imprints and each one will focus on a particular style or genre of book, so within Hachette Children’s Group you can find various imprints such as Hodder Children’s Books or Orchard. The mention of Orchard took me straight back to the many “Orchard book of…” titles that used to grace the book shelves of my classrooms and my perennial favourite “Five Little Ducks”!

With that cleared up we looked at the role an editor plays in the journey from “The Idea” to “The Book”. Once they fall in love with your idea, it is your editor who creates that essential buzz within the publishing house and gets the initial text to the point where everyone involved is happy. From here external agencies may be involved in the copy editing and proof reading process until finally off it goes to print. With the editor as midwife, a new book is finally born.

So how do you improve your chances of getting your masterwork pounced on by an editor?

Top tips from Rachel include:

  • Be serious. Successful authors see their work as a career. Use your networks to build your own profile as a writer.
  • Remember feedback is just an opinion – write your story and only edit if you think it is the right thing to do.
  • Talk to trusted readers – critical friends or other writers.
  • With picture books, just focus on your book. Editors might look to a series if the first book sells well.
  • Is your angle different?
  • Experiment with the form of your book – is it in the right genre, from the right perspective or point of view?
  • Make sure every word is working for you – does it hook your reader in from the start?

“Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”

Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

Prior to the workshop Rachel asked us to bring along a favourite opening paragraph. It’s an interesting exercise: go back to your favourites and ask yourself, “why did I want to keep reading?”

As any seasoned submitter will know, “the pitch,” that introduction to you and your writing, is so difficult to get right. There was much sighing and crossing out as we all tried to pull a pitch together simply to share with a colleague! Rachel helped us think in more depth about what we can do to make our submissions as professional as possible:

  • Understand the books they agent – are you a good match for them?
  • Know who your intended audience is.
  • Include a bit about yourself: successes, related first hand experiences and things of relevance (being a teacher is good!)
  • Include your pitch letter at the start of your manuscript – this can help a busy editor on their eReader recall who you are!
  • Keep your submission letter to one side of A4 and your book pitch to two or three sentences.

To finish up we had a go at editing ourselves, something I enjoyed greatly. I was straight home to wield the axe on those darling little adverbs I had so carefully selected. I’m making every word count. I’m closer to the door.

©Chez l’abeille  2016


Find your funny…

One of my favourite TV comedies is W1A. For those who haven’t come across this gem here’s the gist: Ian Fletcher and his team are tasked with clarifying and defining the BBC’s core purpose. It’s an important role and Ian Fletcher is an important man.

In preparation for the latest SCBWI workshop we were asked to think about our favourite comedy and this was mine. But what actually makes it funny?  As Mo O’Hara, author of the “My big fat zombie goldfish” series has worked with funny for quite a while, we were unpicking comedy gold with a real insider.

So what better place to start than with a banana skin, because… well, it’s a banana skin!

To get to the funny side of a banana skin for children, we had to think about who slipped on it (character), where they were (setting) and when it happened (timing). Now a favourite aunt slipping on a stray banana in the kitchen would probably be a domestic disaster (and not funny). The evil headteacher who has dodged several potential bananas, only to slip up in front of the entire school…well that might just get to green on the funny-o-meter. The key insight I gained from Mo when considering characters, was the idea of status and how this creates humour. Many really funny characters on TV have an assumed status, which brings me back to Ian Fletcher, the man in charge at W1A. Watch the clip carefully and you can see how the clever use of his assumed status is what makes this work; Ian Fletcher really has no control! Mo also got us thinking how to make our characters more multi-faceted by identifying their hopes and fears and thus avoid clichés.

“What’s the worst thing that can happen to your characters? Make it happen!”

A contained world, where the characters are stuck together with no escape is frequently the “where” element of successful comedy. Think of the cells in “Porridge” or the Craggy Island of “Father Ted” as good examples. They are also places where new characters can come and go and this is what provides much of the comic potential. However to make this work for children, any  world we set our characters in needs to be one that is grounded in their reality. Equally, the use of incongruity or taking our characters out of their “normal” can  bring in rich comedy opportunities. Mo referenced Eddie Izzard’s “Death Star Canteen” and if you’ve not seen it – go watch. You’ll get the point!

“Keep saying YES! Be extreme but within the boundaries of your world”

When we listen to really funny things it is often the timing that brings out the funny. Mo encouraged us to use dialogue in the same ways as an orator would. Repetition, emphasis, silence, pauses…all help to create the patterns of speech that will make us laugh. In W1A watch how hapless Will responds to the coffee order. For picture book writers it’s also important that the adults get something from the humour too – after all they’ll be the ones hopefully buying, reading and re-reading. This means re-reading our own work out loud to others is crucial and doing what Mo described as “punching up the script” to make it as funny as you can and upping the humour quotient.

So here’s a question:

Q: What would you call two bananas?

mo-ohara

A: A pair of slippers

See. Banana skins. They’re everywhere. Go find that funny!

©Chez l’abeille  2016


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From paper to published: How to stand out in the slush pile!

Getting your carefully crafted manuscript into the hands of a welcoming publisher is the dream of all picture book writers so this SCBWI workshop was just the ticket! Led by Ellie Brough, Assistant Editor at Maverick, we worked through the many pitfalls and pratfalls of submitting and how to get out of the slush pile.

Maverick is one of those wonderful publishers in the world of children’s books who actually accept unsolicited manuscripts, thus getting us swiftly over hurdle number one – where to send your story. However, as Ellie reminded us, there are still many hurdles; writers with agents already, the time of year or just simply the 3-4k submissions Maverick receive each year!

Still, undaunted by the long odds we considered what would make our submissions stand out and sometimes even jump the queue. Rather marvellously, Maverick read all submissions in order of arrival but sometimes a title will just scream “Read Me!” and get noticed sooner. Ellie gave the wonderful “Strictly No Crocs” by Heather Pindar as a good example. As Steve Bicknell, the founder of Maverick says, “Title is king”. Titles are my downfall so I’m going to have to work on this!

Ellie Brough from Maverick

So what do we need to do? Continue reading